For someone scared of heights, even walking near a ledge can cause discomfort and fear.
But what if you could explore that fear in a virtual environment, with the help of a mental health professional, and rewire how your mind responds to heights?
That’s the idea behind Rey, an Austin-based startup that combines immersive technology such as virtual reality with traditional therapy options such as cognitive behavioral therapy, talk therapy, and medication.
The startup was founded by CEO Deepak Gopalakrishna in April, to improve how certain mental health disorders such as phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder are treated. Gopalakrishna has worked in the health tech industry for nearly two decades as a doctor, entrepreneur, and investor.
When someone has a phobia, Gopalakrishna said, it usually has a specific trigger that comes from memory and can lead to a physiological response such as fear, compulsion, or avoidance.
Rey’s technology builds on a type of therapy known as cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is designed to help people retrain their responses to such triggers. The company’s technology allows people to explore these triggers in virtual environments with a virtual coach who can walk them through exercises designed to help reprogram the brain’s response.
“The treatments that we build in VR, as well as in more traditional web and mobile-based technologies, is taking cognitive behavioral therapy into the software itself,” Gopalakrishna said.
The company builds on VR technology and research developed at Oxford University, which showed that digital therapeutics can get people to clinical outcomes in as little as two weeks. The resulting technology was developed under a venture named OxfordVR, which last month Rey announced it would absorb.
Rey launched in April to bring the technology to market and currently offers treatment for phobias, psychosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, fear of heights, and social avoidance. It also has more treatments in development, including for fear of public speaking and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Rey is making its debut at a time when access to telehealth and digital mental health services has boomed amid the coronavirus pandemic. Several platforms are offering online therapy options, allowing for virtual therapy sessions. Still, Gopalakrishna said, there is a shortage of therapists nationwide, and said simply moving therapy online doesn’t solve that. He said Rey increases both the access and the quality of therapeutic services being provided.
“When you take somebody from an actual physical room, and you stick them into a Zoom room, you don’t really change much,” Gopalakrishna said. “It cannot be technology for the sake of technology. It can’t just access, it has to be solving access to quality”.
The company’s platform aims to use digital interventions like VR to optimize a clinician’s time, and also better monitor and manage a patient’s progress. Gopalakrishna said the goal is to decrease the cost and time needed to deliver care while improving outcomes.
“Technology-enabled care and being able to actually give people access to quality because you can scale quality providers. That can only happen with technology. We’re just structurally not set up to train that many quality providers overnight. Even if we trained four times the providers it still wouldn’t be enough,” Gopalakrishna said. “The only way we can meet it is through technology like this”.
Last month Rey announced it had raised US$10 million in a funding round led by Optum Ventures and Oxford Sciences Innovation, and in total has now raised US$26 million. Currently, the company has a team of about 45 people in the United States and the United Kingdom, with plans to hire another 70 in the next year.
Rey is currently available in Texas, Florida, and Illinois, and the company is working to scale nationwide. It offers two different subscription model tiers. The company is also working to add in-network options with several different insurance payers in the United States. – Austin American-Statesman/Tribune News Service.